SAFIDY

Author: Rabid/Raeann

Rating: PG

Beta Babes: Caia and Zyrya and AllyV

Shout out to: Here's Luck, I was watching the gorgeous video, Hit, when I got the idea for this fic...and so the refrain is in Spike's head.

Spoilers: To Angel season 5, Damage...not that there are spoilers for that eppy or any of S5 really...but I saw part of that one...so maybe I'm spoiled.

Summary: How AtS should end. This story is based on the Madagascar myth of the first woman, the moon and the banana tree. Do you all know that one? It's all about choices.

Disclaimer: Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy and Fox TV own it...so it isn't going to end this way...darn it all. Okay...everyone focus on Sarah and Joss and Jeff Bell and think "END IT LIKE THIS!" The author, herein known as Rabid/Raeann, hereby renounces all rights to this idea and promises to never, ever ask for any compensation if they use this ending.

It was dark. Not the normal night darkness of his past century and a quarter but the frightening, oppressive darkness of his boyhood. This was darkness with teeth...teeth that weren't his. Feeling his way through it, hand over hand, Spike scrabbled along the wall toward the next flight of stairs. When his legs buckled he flailed out and came up hard against something that rocked under his weight - a small table perhaps. The smooth surface bit his flesh. He jerked back from the inanimate contact, gulping in air.

He thought he caught the palest hint of fragrance. There were stands of flower arrangements on the top floor. Had he come far enough at last? He inhaled deeply. There was no obvious odor. But the vase might have tipped when the building shifted. He bent at the waist, cautiously leaning over until he was very close to the tabletop. The softest of petals kissed his lips. He smiled. Almost there, one more flight to the penthouse. One more surge of energy was all he needed. He was weak and as blind as a newborn kitten but he was going to make it.

Abandoning the table, he staggered forward and patted where he had hopes of a doorknob. After what seemed like forever his knuckles wrapped against the brass ball. He turned it and shoved the heavy door open. It swung fluidly, slipping away from him to clang against the inner wall of the stairway. The noise was reassuring. He braced for the door to come back but it still took him by surprise. The vague swish and dim hiss of its passage gave him nothing. He had no way of judging distance or meaning by such ghostly declarations. There was usually bright echolocation to guide him.

Spike wondered how he would survive without the layering of sound and scent. How he would track his prey without using his nose or his ears or his dark adapted vision. The wondering choked him. It was no longer an issue. He was the hunted, not the hunter. Anything could be lurking in the night. He had no way of knowing. Fear inspired a sharp mental image of the ground dropping away beneath him. He had to force his feet across the invisible threshold. His fingertips brushed along the door, clinging to it, as he pushed it open again. This time he let go more cautiously. He stood shaking, dizzy in the blackness, trying to gather his nerve. When the door banged shut behind him he jumped.

"Bugger this," he snarled, impatient with his timidity. "Doesn't matter if I can't see; I'm not helpless!"

He built up a head of steamy bravado, standing there. Eventually he found the courage to move. He shuffled along, straining to see the first step. Amazingly, he seemed to be recovering some vision. There was a suggestion of light. He tried to find the source of it but failed. It was a feeble diffusion, not bright enough to locate. He could only make out formless shadows in the stairwell, lesser and denser black. He couldn't see his feet or delineate his hands as they clutched for the slick reassurance of the railing. But just the idea of light encouraged him. As he started up the stairs, Spike fixed his attention on the cause of his affliction.

Angel had done this. Angel had taken his eyes, his ears, and his eternal life, leaving him a gasping shadow of his former self. He was sensory deprived. It was like floating in a tank...in a womb...except for the pain. God, there was so much pain. Everything he touched seemed to etch into his flesh. The world was too sharp. It cut at him. His palms and knees and nose were bleeding freely. His chest and legs burned with hellish fire. His head throbbed.

'I've been hit,' he thought. The Sugar Cubes' refrain danced into his head: This wasn't supposed to happen. This wasn't supposed to happen. It truly wasn't. Not to him. It was all settled. Decided. They would go on the defensive, attack high and low and take the prize. Damn the bastard.

"Damn you, Angel," he muttered, a heartbeat before he slammed face first into the locked door at the top of the stairs.

Fresh blood filled his mouth but he ignored the injury and groped along the door, searching for a way through it. It was a fire exit, for emergencies only. With more light, he could have read the notice painted on it: Alarm Will Sound. In the dark, he fumbled until he found the press-to-open bar. He leaned his weight against it. Nothing. He tugged hard, rattling the bolt. When his efforts failed, he kicked and growled, throwing his shoulder into the metal barrier. The door didn't budge.

"DAMN YOU!" he screamed, pounding the flat of his hand against the unyielding surface. "OPEN UP! FACE ME, YOU LILY-LIVERED PONCE! Angel? Angel! Open...up..." Hearing the tremor in his voice, Spike blushed to the soles of his feet. He was sobbing. He tried to smother the telltale gasps, knuckling savagely at his streaming eyes. He hated being weak, hated it. But he couldn't help weeping...for her...for the loss.

"WHAT ABOUT HER, YOU SELFISH BASTARD?" he bellowed in renewed outrage. "We had a deal! Everything was settled! You can't do this...you...can't...it's not right..."

His protest trailed away into another shaky breath. Cheek pressed against the door, he gulped air. It burned like rotgut whiskey going down. The pain was almost unbearable. He felt helpless, eight years old again, a mewling boy child. Shut out. It was like he was standing by the family tomb, ignored by his father for the last time. He could remember leaning against the heavy marble, tears falling unchecked, cursing his father's mortal remains...cursing his final betrayal. Damn the bastard.

The penthouse fire door was just as unforgiving, just as terminal. And then, unexpectedly, it surrendered, dumping him into the room. There was light. Not a lot but enough. He could see again. And it hurt. He shielded his eyes and peered up at the blurry brooder hovering over him.

"Not everything in this world is about Buffy," Angel said, softly.

"Yeah," a light feminine voice breathed from somewhere on the far side of the room. "There are other people suffering, you know?"

The comment took Spike by surprise. He rolled his head back and tried to focus on the buxom figure huddled under a blanket in the corner of Angel's sofa.

"Harmony?" He blinked, questioning the testament of his myopic eyes.

"Spike?" the vacuous blonde sneered, mimicking his tone. Not particularly impressed with him, she turned away to stare out at the lights of Los Angeles. Her mouth was full of sulky petulance. "Still singing the same one-note song, I see: 'Buffy...Buffy...Buffy.'" As she spoke, she rubbed her hands up and down her arms as if trying to stimulate warmth.

"Uh..."

Spike was at a loss. He flopped onto his belly and let his gaze drift, taking in the disaster of Angel's apartment. Like the rest of the Wolfram & Hart building it was in ruins. The surge of magic had nearly toppled the tower. The far wall of picture windows had apparently imploded. There were shards of glass everywhere. Most of the furniture had been sucked out of the building or splintered into kindling. All that remained was the sofa and a heavy wooden sideboard. A single velvet curtain hung askew in the window. The tatters of it whipped and cracked with the early morning breeze.

It took two tries before Spike struggled to his feet. After gaping at Harmony for a few more heartbeats, he refocused his ire on Angel. "What the hell did you do?"

Angel tried a careless shrug. He couldn't pull it off. He raked a hand through his hair, started to say something, paused and then cocked his head to one side. His glib superiority had apparently failed him. He frowned over the loss. Spike raised an eyebrow, not buying this show of reticence. Angel shoved both hands into his pant's pockets and stood, awkward as a schoolboy on a first date. He rocked up onto his toes and then back onto his heels. When he could take no more of Spike's accusing glare, he moved away from it, walking to the open windows. Broken glass crunched under his feet.

"It was...complicated," he mumbled as he went. "There were questions...things to consider. And there was a...a choice."

"A choice?" Spike parroted. "Yeah, we figured tha' di'n we? It was going to be you or me."

"Him or us," Harmony put in. She pressed an imaginary intercom button. "Ego check for Spike on line one."

"You're not helping," Spike and Angel said together, and then exchanged a glance of flustered camaraderie.

Spike took hold of his temper. He wanted to rage. But he needed answers more than he needed the satisfaction of throwing Angel out the window. Something had obviously gone wrong with the deal. After a second or so he released a long shuddering breath and moved into the center of the room.

"Look," he said, trying for reasonable. "You picked me. I got that. I got humanized. It sucks, by the way." The corners of Angel's mouth twitch up in response to the aside and Spike had to wrestle with his temper again. It's not funny, you worthless sod. Smirk and we'll find out if you got your bloody angel wings.

To his credit, Angel controlled the urge to gloat over Spike's struggle.

"I don't know why you did it," Spike continued. "But...maybe it's not too late. Maybe we can...I don't know.... Take it back? It was wrong. I was ready to take over. I was."

"Take over?" Angel snorted. He turned his back on the view and stared at Spike in disbelief. "You? Spike...seriously! Grand gestures and poetic fancy aside...you can't do what I do. That's why I had to do it."

"Uh...I could so!" Spike sputtered, completely offended by this slur. "You're not the only bloody hero here. World saved remember?"

"For her," Harmony reminded. "You saved the world...for her! You didn't care about the rest of us."

"Touché," Angel said, again with the near smile.

"Okay, maybe that was true," Spike admitted. "Back then." The look he shot at Harmony waffled between annoyance and apology. "But," he said, continuing to confront Angel. "I can care...I can! And besides...what does it matter? The hero biz isn't about warm fuzzies. If I save the world enough, does it really matter why?"

Angel shook his head. He didn't seem angry just resigned. "The truth is you're not a champion, Spike. You're just...Buffy's champion."

"There's a difference?"

"Yeah, there is," Angel said. "Would you kill her, Spike? Would you drive a sword through her heart...leave her to bleed? Would you send Buffy to hell to save the rest of us?"

Spike felt a chill but he straightened his spine. She would want him to do it. If the world was in peril, he knew she would guide his hand. "If I had to," he insisted. "I could do it." His chin had a firm set but his gut twisted with icy dread at the very idea.

"Only because it's what Buffy would want," Angel sighed, reading him like a book.

"No...NO! Because..." Spike struggled to convey the heroic tone. "If it was the right thing to do...I would do it to make up for...all the evil...and killing...and...and..."

He gave up. It was too late, anyway. The decision was made. He let the truth take him. He wasn't a hero. Under the attitude, without the fangs, he was just that nice guy, the one who always finished last. Life overwhelmed him and tears welled in his eyes. He stumbled blindly to the sofa, collapsing into the corner opposite Harmony.

"You aren't going to start crying are you?" she asked, pulling her feet in and wrinkling her nose in distaste. "Because that whole tortured creature of the night thing is so over."

Spike lifted his head out of his hands and shot her a venomous look. "Why are you here?"

"Because I," Harmony started confidently and then broke off, frowning. "Because..." She glanced at Angel.

"She was here when it happened," Angel said. He smiled weakly. "I suppose...she's the reason I did it."

Harmony sat up straight. "Really?" she chirped, preening. Angel answered her with a modest shift of the shoulders. She threw off her blanket and popped up from the sofa, clapping her hands together in delight. "You did all this for me, boss? That's so...that's just..."

Angel managed to duck her first impetuous rush of affection but she caught him on the second pass and buzzed a kiss into his cheek. Spike's brows shot up. He gave a derisive cough. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. After the day he'd had, it was the outside of enough.

"Oh, you have got to be kidding," he barked as he struggled unsteadily to his feet. He'd forgotten what climbing thirty flights of stairs at top speed could do to a man's thigh muscles. "You're telling me Harmony...HARMONY...is the reason I'm breathing and you're not?"

Angel nodded. "She's part of our line," he said, as if that was some kind of explanation instead of a joke. "Maybe only indirectly. But the connection is there...the roots, the branch...the tree...you know?"

"No, I don't know," Spike corrected. "What are you babbling about?"

It was Harmony who answered him. "The Shanshu?" she reminded, her manner condescending. She still had one arm around Angel's waist. Her upper lip curled as she raked her gaze over her ex. Spike felt the gulf of place and privilege open between them. "And you aren't the only one breathing here, Mr. Self-Absorbed."

"I'm not...the...?"

It took a moment to register. When it did, Spike shot a stern glare at Harmony's ample bosom. She noticed the direction of his attention and shifted into a snooty stance, reminding him of Cecily and her crowd of debutantes. With a bit of concentration, he could see it. Her chest was rising and falling in a steady rhythm. The implications made him shiver. His gaze wandered and settled on Harmony's abandoned blanket. She'd been cold....like him. She was human...like him. Spike tried to speak but all that escaped his lips was a tiny bleat of confusion.

"There was a choice," Angel repeated. He disentangled from Harmony and, head down, gently approached Spike. "Just not the one we were expecting."

Spike avoided the hand Angel was stretching out to him. He backed away, shaking his head. "I...I don't...understand."

"Hello?" Harmony yodeled, waving her arm like she was hailing a taxi. "The rest of the line or Angel? There was nothing in the prophecy about you! God, does the breathing affect your brain? You used to be smart." She looked him up and down again. "You used to be...someone. But now that I see you alive, I can see why you wanted to be dead."

"Harmony?" Angel admonished. "Shouldn't you be brewing coffee or something?"

"But Angel...I thought we could," Harmony began and then stopped short. "What am I saying?" She asked the ceiling. "I don't need to be the third hobbit on the big rock anymore. Unlike you losers, I have a life to go back to...a house...a car...my Daddy is alive. My inheritance is waiting. I have people to call, important people...and...and shoes to buy." She flounced to the door but paused on the threshold to throw a final shot over her shoulder before exiting. "If you're ever in Malibu...? Either of you...? Don't bother looking me up."

As soon as the door slammed shut behind her, Spike sneered sardonically, "Excellent choice. I can see how you would want to save her."

"You just don't get it do you?" Angel snapped. "It's not about that. It's not about the people who deserve to be saved...those I like or love. It's about everyone. It's about Harmony...and you...and Drusilla...and Vlad...and even that creepy little weasel Otis."

Spike rolled his eyes and spoke the required Otis tag line with Angel. "What was his deal?" they intoned. Despite his misery Spike smiled at the memory of a shared affliction. He felt calmer. He was getting used to feeling everything and sensing nothing.

"So," he said, meeting Angel's eye. "The choice was...you or the Aurelius line?"

Angel nodded soberly. "Wes gave me the final piece of the puzzle after you left for the White Room. If I chose to live...then the rest of you would dust. No more vampires," he clarified. "No more curse. I could have Buffy...maybe...and children and be happy."

"But you thought: Nooooo!" Spike exclaimed fanning his fingers like Carson confronted with a polyester pantsuit.

"Right," Angel snapped, ignoring the Queer Eye impression. "I thought long and hard. Because there was more to consider than my own happiness. I wanted to live. But if I earned my life and let it go, if I chose death, eternal half-life...whatever? I would be alone...forever..." He let the word hang in the air for a moment before smiling angelically. "I would be alone," he repeated, "but the rest of you would get a second chance at life."

He spread his hands out wide. "All of the people I sired, Spike, every one of them. And all of the people they sired. The slate would be wiped clean. Even beyond that...we think...Wes is researching this part, right now...but we are pretty sure the line of Aurelius goes back to the first vampire. All of those people could be alive now....my ancestors....my progeny and yours and Darla's and Drusilla's. How could I say no to that?"

There was a very long silence. "You couldn't," Spike finally admitted. "It's not in your nature." He wandered over to stand beside his grandsire. They stared out the window. The clouds were gold and crimson, alight with the breaking dawn. After a time, Spike spoke again. "Buffy would have done the same thing."

"I know," Angel said, softly. "But you...? You would have picked a life with her. In my place?"

Spike sighed but he didn't answer. He couldn't say. No more vampires. No more threat to the Slayer. Buffy loved Angel. The sacrifice could have assured her happiness. But in Angel's place? Would he have been as selfless?

"Well," he said at last, "we'll never know. 'Cause it wasn't up to me, was it? You're the champion."

"And you're the man."

"Right," Spike said, trying to sound briskly cheerful. It wasn't good form to protest the gift of salvation. He threw a look over his shoulder. "I suppose I should go do something manly."

Angel didn't react to the suggestion. Nor did he move even when Spike started for the door. Spike hesitated, one hand pressing down the bar. He considered his savior. "You'll need to take cover soon," he reminded, waving an arm to take in the very light sky outside the glassless windows. "I know the view is to die for, but still.... Don't want Champion flambé do we?"

Angel didn't seem to hear him. He remained motionless, standing dangerously close to the squares of sunlight inching across the carpeted floor. "Where will you go?" he asked.

"Hadn't thought about it," Spike replied with studied nonchalance. Rome, his heart said. "Might go look up Dru." Right, I could drown my sorrows in...more sorrow.

Angel made a rude noise. "Go to her," he ordered without turning around and Spike knew he wasn't talking about Drusilla.

"And say what? 'Angel couldn't make it'?"

"You are such a jackass sometimes," Angel muttered. "She's waiting for you."

All of the loss and pain hit Spike at once. It was over. He had come full circle. And in the end, he was the same loser he'd always been.

"You think it's that simple?" He raged. Abandoning the door, he stalked toward the impassive Angel and pointed an accusing finger. "You think you can just play God and make everything work out? Buffy loves you. Nothing is going to change that. Leaving her alone in Sunnydale didn't change it...sacrificing yourself like this...it only proves the two of you are meant to be. You're both the same. I'm nothing like you. I'm not a hero."

"That's just it, Spike," Angel said, finally stepping away from the light. His long coat swirled like a cape as he crossed the room to the sideboard. He pulled open the middle drawer and rummaged busily before extracting an envelope. "Why would Buffy need a hero?"

"I...what?"

"She could take us both out if she wanted to," Angel said. "She doesn't need to be rescued." He weighed the letter in his palm as he whispered, "She just needs...to be loved."

"So? YOU go to her. Make her happy. I know Buffy. She likes a little bit of the monst..."

"You know her," Angel agreed, cutting him off, "but not as well as she knows you."

He flipped up the flap on the letter with a thumbnail and eased out a single sheet of paper. Unfolding it, he looked it over silently for a time. He stood very still as he read. It was as if he'd forgotten everything else. Finally, when Spike sniffed impatiently, Angel glanced up with a start.

"I'm sorry," he said, sounding sincerely contrite. Walking toward Spike, he held out the letter. "This is for you. I should have told you." He paused, glanced again at the page in his hand, and then rephrased. "I should have given you this when you first arrived. But I didn't want to..." He fumbled for the right word. "...believe, I guess. I didn't want to believe in you. I know it was selfish. And I hope you can forgive me."

"Forgive you?"

Bewilderment wrinkled Spike's brow. He tried to shake the cobwebs from his head. He was very tired and this was the last thing he'd expected. Angel should have been undermining his confidence, not urging him to seek out the Slayer. They should be maneuvering for advantage. Instead, his rival was offering apologies and a letter. After a brief hesitation, Spike reached out a trembling hand and took the missive.

He squinted down at the page, wished for more light and only then remembered he needed glasses to read comfortably. He could just make out the words. It was Buffy's handwriting, sharply slanted and precise. The salutation made him squirm and he glared at Angel with renewed anger.

"Keep going it gets better."

"My dearest Angel," Spike read aloud, clearing his throat after the name. "You will always have a place in my heart. The love we shared was real but we both held on to it for far too long. I know that now. I know you were right to leave." He stopped in surprise. His eyes darted up to Angel's face for a second. The vampire was staring into the middle distance. Spike returned his attention to the letter, continuing on in silence.

"We were the same once, you and I, lost heroes. I guess that's what we saw in each other...the shared hopelessness. As long as we held on to that, we were never alone. But we've both changed. So much has happened. You've made your choices and I've lost the only man who ever really loved me. Spike..."

The splash of a fallen tear had crinkled the paper, blurring his name. He touched a fingertip to the watermark. Buffy's beautiful words swam in front of him. He had to squeeze his eyes shut for a moment before he could resume reading.

"Spike...loved me. The woman I am inside! Not the champion, not the Slayer. And I need that, Angel. I need to be loved like that. I need him. He was so brave at the end. He wanted me to live. So I will. But I can't live here. I can't bear it. Every time I look at you, I remember the pain I caused him.

"I love him, I always will. He didn't believe me when I told him. But you need to believe me, now. There is no doubt in my heart and no room for anyone else. Crazy as it sounds, I can't help thinking he will come back to me. Every night I save him and every day I wake up to the loss. Please go on with your life. Don't wait for me, I won't be coming back."

Spike looked up, dazed, as he breathed out the final word on the page, "Buffy."

Angel was at the door, holding it open. "What I don't understand," he said in a conversational tone, "Is what you are doing still standing there."

ROME

5 weeks later

Campo de' Fiori was a riot of color and noise. Everywhere Spike looked he saw bright, beautiful hues. The storm that had followed him from England had passed on in the night, leaving the city sparkling. Bicycles and scooters whizzed past him. People bustled about on all sides, positioning tubs of flowers and bins of vegetables. They wheeled loaded pushcarts, set tent poles and flipped open folding tables. A hundred voices called out greetings.

He paused, inhaling deeply. The early morning breeze was rain fresh. It carried the scent of just picked oranges and the tang of potted geraniums. Spike breathed it all in, taking unexpected delight in the subtle undercurrents of aroma. There was coffee brewing somewhere. The smell teased his taste buds and his stomach rumbled in anticipation of breakfast. It was a glorious day, sunny and mild.

He stopped to buy an espresso and biscotti. Standing at a table, wolfing down the treat, Spike checked the print-out Andrew had given him and compared the map to his surroundings. His heart beat a little faster. His destination was just ahead, along a narrow side street. If he craned his neck he could see the roof of the Palazzo de Ricci. The palazzo housed the Roman Watcher's Council and the resident Slayers.

Careful research had him well prepared for this first encounter. Buffy should be home. Her movements were as regimented as a nun's. He wasn't as sure of Dawn. She might be at school or ensconced in the loft room in Buffy's apartment or off with the boyfriend, Carlo. He didn't know which scenario suited him best. But he had chosen to arrive in Rome in the middle of the school week, knowing full well that Dawn usually stayed in her dormitory until Saturday.

After brushing crumbs from his hands, Spike pocketed his map and started across the piazza. His eyes were fixed on the ornate carvings of the distant rooftop. There was a brass insignia, the cross and stake. It had to be the right building.

Inattentiveness was nearly his undoing. As he reached the side road a sugar pink Vespa chugged out of it, almost mowing him down.

The driver, a slim girl with lush curves, had to swerve to avoid him. Barely touching her brake, she waved an apologetic hand, calling "Scusi" over her shoulder. Spike's throat closed tight around a half-uttered Italian obscenity. He knew that voice. Bouncing up on the balls of his feet, he tried to keep the girl in view. But she was gone, vanishing into the press of traffic and tents before he got more than a fleeting impression of her.

She was the right age. He was certain of that much at least. More woman than girl, she had been dressed simply in a lime green sweater set and loose khaki shorts. A braid of chocolate brown hair had tailed out from beneath her pink helmet as she motored away.

"Dawn?"

It was a question. It had to be. Despite his gut feeling, Spike couldn't be sure. It might have been the Bit on the scooter but he wasn't ready to swear by his perceptions. There was a slight pang just under his breastbone, the stab of regret and loss. Never again would he catch a signature scent on the air. Dawn, he remembered, smelled something like the taste of roasted sunflower seeds. Or rather that aroma lingered under the obligatory chemical camouflage of modern femininity. He certainly didn't miss gagging over nearly lethal combinations of sport deodorant and perfumed body wash. Chalk one up for the less sensitive nose; he could tolerate fragrance, even up close and personal.

The compensation was a small comfort. His sense of smell, though almost uncanny by human standards, was a blunted instrument. He had lost his edge. In some ways it was worse than the loss of his supernatural hearing. Without pheromones for guidance, he was forced into a Jedi-like existence, relying more on instinct than sensory input. Despite the wonder of a full spectrum of color and the contact lenses augmenting his deficient vision, Spike moved through the world as wary as a blind man, feeling his way along.

It was frustrating. A month of acclimation hadn't resigned him to the change. He still had skills, of course. Little things he'd picked up in death, like the equivalent of three black belts in the martial arts. And he'd kept a bit of his old swagger. After all, he reasoned, it wasn't general practice to breeze through Watcher training in three weeks. But then again, as Andrew was prone to point out, he did have a hundred year head start on the rest of the class.

Still, he wasn't at home in his skin. Being human felt like a role he'd been asked to play. He was dressed like a man, in camel colored slacks and a stark white oxford, sleeves rolled to the elbows. He had a job with the Council and a new identity. But inside he was a baffled predator, trapped in unfamiliar territory. He thought about killing something at least six times before breakfast. He dreamed of the chase.

He also dreamed of her. He longed for the saving grace of her touch. He wanted to hold her in his arms, press his lips to hers, and truly feel alive. None of the pain of living would matter if he could only be sure of Buffy's love. But would she love him? Could she? Angel was right: she didn't need a hero. But that didn't mean she needed him. He didn't want her pity. He wanted her to burn with him. But would she feel the same desire, seeing what he had become? Spike's soul filled him with doubt. Unwilling to burden her with his period of adjustment, he had stayed under the radar. Until, Giles had threatened to expose him.

"She's calling twice a day now," Rupert had admonished. "She knows I'm hiding something. I am not going to lie to her anymore. You need to start lying for yourself."

And so he had come to Rome, to face the fire again. He had her letter folded, close to his heart, in his shirt pocket. It gave him comfort. It stiffened his spine. But even as he passed under the arched entryway of the Palazzo de Ricci, Spike wondered if he had the courage to keep walking. He could feel the terror growing in his belly. How would she react to seeing him alive? How could he explain his lapse in devotion? He had doubted her. It was unforgivable.

In the final scene, the last seconds of their time together, he'd let cowardice rule his reason. Part of him wanted to blame Angel and the ill- timed kiss. But Buffy had glossed over the incident, asked to stay the night. They had cuddled close and kissed like love-struck teens. It was Spike who had insisted on silence, placing a cautioning finger to Buffy's lips whenever she tried to resume their earlier conversation. The words were in their hearts and hands and eyes but he couldn't bear to hear them. He was sure if she ever spoke of love he would burn away. In the end, when the fire came and her walls crumbled to ash, it had been easier for him not to believe than to face leaving her.

When he reached the inner courtyard of the Palazzo, Spike paused to gather his thoughts and his nerve. Sunlight had already spilled over the clay tiled rooftop. Where he stood was in shadow but the rest of the enclosed area was bathed in golden light. He let his gaze travel up a stone staircase on the far wall. Someone had placed terracotta pots full of red geraniums and yellow moss roses on every other step. There was a grey and white cat sleeping on the landing. A movement at a window caught his eye.

He did a double take, staring in disbelief. It was her, his Buffy, framed in the arch of a double glazed window. She was only visible from the waist up. A white cotton top, cropped an inch or so below her breasts, left her midsection bare. The shirt's soft material moved when she did, teasing him with glimpses of skin. Her long hair was tied back. She was looking down at her hands, obviously engrossed in some busy work. The ponytail flipped from side to side. Her arms moved in a steady rhythm as if she were washing dishes or chopping vegetables.

Spike held his ground, transfixed, content to watch her from a distance even as he longed to be closer. He imagined standing behind her. He would tug on the band holding her hair in place and let those glorious tresses foam free. Minutes ticked by and the shadows surrounding him retreated, leaving him exposed. He didn't notice until a frisson of awareness pulled him out of his reverie. Blinking, he met Buffy's startled gaze.

For a moment she too seemed mesmerized and then she was gone from the window. A second later the door at the top of the stairs banged open, startling the sleeping cat. The alarmed animal sprang out of Buffy's way as she pelted down the steps. Slayer balance served her well. She didn't have to brake for the turn half-way down the stair. Her ponytail zigzagged. Her long fluted skirt whipped around her legs, threatening to send her head over heels but she kept her footing. She didn't check her speed until she reached him. She halted abruptly a few feet away.

Spike looked into her eyes and saw the glint of tears. His own vision blurred. He swallowed in a futile effort to dislodge the lump in his throat. Struggling to speak, he opened his mouth, failed to find words and closed it again. A gentle, wistful smile played over Buffy's lips. She shuffled forward one tentative step. Then she lifted her right arm, holding the hand up with the palm facing him. He dared to breathe again and stepped forward as well, matching her gesture. They laced their fingers together.

Spike found his courage. He beamed in response to Buffy's equally joyous grin.

"What I meant to say, jus' then," he said, his voice hoarse with emotion, "Was: I love you, too."

THE END

*AUTHOR'S NOTE: The title of this story, SAFIDY, means "choice or option" in Malagasy the native language of Madagascar.

The myth I based it on is a creationist myth from Madagascar: The First Woman was given a choice about how mankind would exist on the earth. She was told she could have the renewable life of the moon, wasting away and then being made whole again. Or she could choose the life of the banana tree, which dies but sends out shoots which grow into new trees. The first woman decided she would rather die than live an eternal life alone. In the end, she chose to pass from this world and was compensated with the companionship of children. And so mankind flourished like the banana tree.

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